Slashing the BBC World Service is a disaster
Cutting down on global services undermines Britain's soft power abroad
Almost any public policy decision, however contentious, can be justified in some manner, even if the justification does not command universal acceptance. The BBC’s decision to axe its World Service broadcasts in dozens of languages and to fire hundreds of staff belongs to the rare category of decision that only make sense if you assume the Corporation is being run by the United Kingdom’s worst enemies.
Consider the list of services set for the axe. On the radio side, they include broadcasts for the insignificant languages of Arabic (360 million speakers), Persian (110 million; and in the middle of widespread unrest in Iran, too), Kyrgyz (4,5 million), Uzbek (44 million), Hindi (322 million; what will this do to the UK’s pivot to the Quad in the Asia-Pacific?), Bengali (300 million), Chinese (1,3 billion), Indonesian (300 million), Tamil (86 million), and Urdu (230 million).
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Another seven languages are moving to “digital only”, including Chinese (the BBC website has been blocked in China for years). The English service will develop its “podcast offer” for the ever-elusive younger audiences, the same ones the BBC is pathologically incapable of attracting domestically.
Now, the Beeb will not be the most popular four-letter word in these parts, but as an instrument of British soft power it is hard to exaggerate its impact. The World Service is among the most recognisable British institutions internationally; countless foreign decision- and opinion-makers have been influenced by it.
For many, the World Service, whether in English or vernacular, is what gives them a favourable impression of the United Kingdom. This extends to far beyond the developing world: the World Service’s news bulletins are syndicated across American radio, and they have an outsized audience among officials in Washington (the BBC also wants to “reduc[e] the volume of syndicated TV and radio content”).
Until one of George Osborne’s economy drives, the World Service had been financed directly out of the Foreign Office budget. Successive foreign secretaries, most of them Conservative and few of them bleeding-heart liberals, rightly saw it as an instrument of British foreign policy first and foremost, and paid for it accordingly. Soft power is far from being everything —sometimes only a gunboat will do — but it still matters enormously, particularly as the UK is trying to renew old friendships and forge new ones outside of Europe.
The BBC promises that it will “accelerate [sic] its digital offering” at the same time, but it is hard to see how it plans to do this after also firing 382 World Service employees. All of this is in order to achieve savings of £28.5m, which is equal to 21 Gary Linekers, or a week’s budget for BBC One. Or indeed, a tenth of the projected cost of the new royal yacht, designed to fly the flag around the world, at far higher cost but far lower returns (the UK can afford both; but which should have priority is a non-brainer).
This decision is emblematic of the British foreign policy blob’s inability to see where its strengths lie internationally and to cut corners at the worst places possible. The Foreign Office, which signed off on the changes (though the decision was the BBC management’s) had previously scrapped its in-house language school to save an enormous £1m a year, before having to reverse the decision six years later, as it the stupidity of the decision became clear even to permanent under-secretaries.
Liz Truss might speak tough on China, but under her watch the number of Chinese speakers in the Foreign Office actually dropped. British external messaging is often filled with contemporary twee which simply has no resonance abroad.
Few electorates like the idea of giving things to foreigners for free; but effective diplomacy often requires just that. The UK can either have a mature foreign policy; or it can save the budget equivalent of CBeebies and burn immense quantities of goodwill. Britannia no longer rules the waves; will she now give up the airwaves as well?
It’s just typical of the BBC – identify the problem incorrectly, reach the wrong conclusion, and then try and fix what isn’t broken whilst leaving the original problems untouched.
The reach and influence of the World Service used to be undeniable – it generated goodwill and respect towards the UK – but the BBC has no goodwill towards the nation itself – and no wish to promote Britain to the world – it would sooner run down the nation and self-flagellate over the evils of colonialism.
In its domestic broadcasting agenda, the BBC looks at every problem with a view to gaining/retaining a younger, more diverse audience.
BBC programming in general has decided that older viewers should be ignored – all in a vain attempt to chase a younger audience, none of whom would ever think to spend an evening in watching 2 terrestrial channels – at the same time they seem actively to discourage the older audience that might.
They sack much-loved, longtime presenters thus alienating the audience, and gain nothing in the way of new viewers from it. A Question of Sport regularly got 5 million viewers – they then axed Sue Barker and the regular team captains in an attempt to reach a more youthful audience, the result being that they now barely scrape 750 thousand viewers. Who was the idiot who thought that was a good idea?
They’ve taken long running and much loved series – Dr Who being a good example – and remade them as activist propaganda.
BBC Drama has decided to rewrite the classics by inserting C21st liberal agenda issues into adaptations of 18th and 19th century literature.
Each one of those decisions has actively discouraged previously loyal viewers.
Issues that chime with BBC virtue projection, such as Climate, Austerity or most recently with Covid or BLM stories, are presented with no balance, no counter-narrative. Simple propaganda is enough.
Why does the BBC keep such a proliferation of Radio channels that cater to a minute audience, and compete for that audience with commercial stations?
Why cut the World Service when it has global reach and the ability to promote the most positive view of Britain to the rest of the world, at a time when we really need it?
I am a great supporter of “the idea” of the BBC. To have TV & Radio channels entirely free from advertiser or owner-led interference, supported by licence fee payers, that can produce quality programmes without having to pander to lowest common denominator tastes to chase viewing figures, was (and should still be) what made it one of the great British institutions.
However, if the BBC cannot see that it should be promoting Britain, not denigrating it – if it cannot understand that it should be treating its audience (and paymaster) with respect rather than contempt, – if it fails to meet its charter obligations towards impartiality then it gives up the right to its funding. If they want to continue receiving state funding then the BBC needs to face up to this and be brave enough to change.
Auntie needs to grow some b @ ll s!
Excellent summary Paddy – thanks.
Public Service broadcasting is far too important to be left to the BBC to run.
Who should do it then? You? The Tory party? Nigel Farage? GB News? LOL
That leaves Radio 3 as the last bastion, but even here ‘change ‘ is afoot.
The problem with catering primarily to today’s older viewers is that in 20 years there’s going to be a lot fewer of the current cohort left. The Beeb has no choice but to reach out to younger viewers if it plans on out-living the boomers. Quite how it goes about this is, of course, up for discussion…
You echo my thoughts exactly Paddy (but express them more coherently).
All it would take would be a DG with enough foresight and energy to axe the liberal activism, balance Traditionalists with Liberals on the News and Programme Commissioning executives, ban any employee or high profile contributor from airing their views on Twitter and be explicit in setting a pro-British tone to all output.
Like most people, I want to love Britain’s institutions including the BBC. But they make it so hard to do so.
OK, so it’s now clear that the BBC are prepared to sacrifice the World Service as part of their political games. Take it off them completely and make it a completely separate organisation not under the awful BBC management. Subtract the appropriate proportion of the BBC licence fee at source before it is paid to the BBC. Allow them to continue to use the BBC name (since it still means something abroad). Rename the domestic BBC to something more accurately descriptive if necessary and their brand has been so devalued in the UK.
Last time I listened (a few years ago now). BBC World Service news reporting was far better than domestic BBC News and not yet infected by the BBC’s desire to run a campaigning organisation rather than a news one.
I fully agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. The WS is a valuable asset for the UK and should be preserved. I sincerely hope that someone in government has a word with the BBC and tells them that if they don’t reverse this decision, management of the WS will be taken away from them along with the concomitant funding. The rest of the BBC can go to hell in a handcart as far as I’m concerned.
Why should the British public pay to have the BBC denigrate them to the world?
Give me a list of examples of where the BBC denigrates Britain. You cannot make such silly assertions without backing them up.
You hate the BBC. You perceive that the BBC hates Britain. What you want is something more like you would get in Russia, i.e., endlessly hagiographic, endlessly uncritical state propaganda.
I’m a foreigner. I listen to the BBC world service.
If the BBC is “denigrating Britain”, it’s making a very poor job of it, because the effect of the BBC on me is to increase my affection and admiration for Britain.
You don’t wish to hear that.
You don’t wish to hear from an actual foreigner that the BBC does a great job of extending British soft power abroad.
Your hatred of the BBC stems from your perception of it domestically and from your desire to have a national broadcaster which only reflects your right-wing viewpoints. So great is your hatred of the BBC that you are psychologically incapable of admitting that the BBC does any good, because then the sheer stupidity of Tory plans to wreck the BBC might become apparent, even to people like you.
Britain has lurched sharply to a populist right, wherein the great pillars of British life – the NHS, the monarchy, the BBC – all are now in the firing line for not being right-wing enough. Brexiters will not rest until they have destroyed the NHS (and sold its carcass to the Yank private sector); shut down the BBC and replaced it with game-show, soft-porn and Brexit propaganda channels about the easiest deals in history lol; and gotten rid of the monarchy (the royals are too woke and too green for your tastes – so obvious that Truss can’t stand King Charles).
What you fail to appreciate is that the BBC’s British soft power does not depend on whether an opinion in a BBC programme is for Brexit or against Brexit. Or whether it’s critically examining the British empire or bragging about it.
Don’t you realise that foreign listeners are MORE IMPRESSED by an organisation that can occasionally be critical of its own country. We can see through lesser broadcasters which always cleave to an ultra-patriotic line. They’re not worth listening to, and invariably signify a corrupt and second-rate state where the national broadcaster is in the pocket of its ruling party.
What impresses us foreigners is how professional it seems. How measured. And yes, how posh! Regardless of content, the BBC stands as an exemplar of quality and calmness and competence. It sends out some very powerful feel-good messages about Britain REGARDLESS OF PROGRAMME CONTENT.
The very things which annoy you about the BBC are among the things which always makes foreigners feel that Britain must be a better country that many others – because of the fact that its national broadcaster so obviously is not a puppet or poodle broadcaster, churning out the usual empty-headed flag-waving stuff.
But of course, blinded by your Brexit-y ideology, you guys are unable to accept that.
I used to listen to World Service programs in English 30 or more years ago and found them excellent. I have no idea what they are like now but if they have followed the trajectory of the rest of the BBC it is probably better that we are not putting out programs excoriating the UK as a racist, xenophobic hell hole intent on supporting the lie that a man can become a woman by declaring it.
It may be better that foreigners are left with the happy outdated illusion that we are still calm unexcitable gentlemen with stiff-upper-lips whose word can be relied on, who treat our wife’s decently and can be expected to put up a decent fight when we are led into some misconceived foreign adventure. Decent chaps rather than cads. It is better to draw a veil over what we have become. Perhaps it is the best decision the BBC has made although for all the wrong reasons.
Do we really want the drivel we have to endure here to be more widely broadcast. Of course, if the World Service actually still maintains decent standards in their output it would be unfortunate to lose the service but it would be one additional reason for the BBC apparatchiks to kill it off. The Foreign Office are presumably too woke to take it back and pay for sensible output.
A lot of BBC’s decisions seem to be based on a desire to taunt sections of the UK public and punish a UK government that it doesn’t agree with. Or as Yuan puts succinctly:
“…decision that only make sense if you assume the Corporation is being run by the United Kingdom’s worst enemies.”
Seemingly there is no facet of the BBC that is run wisely. It is like a Basil Faulty run hotel, only without the steadying hand of Mrs Faulty….and If Basil was written to be a Jerrmy Corbyn like character.
‘comrade Jones here thinks his sausage is not quite done… well comrade Jones can take his sausage and stick it up……
“The behavior of an organization can best be predicted by assuming it to be controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies” attributed to Robert Conquest.
Even though I don’t much like the BBC
I do agree
Don’t love the BBC but respect their history. Weird that under Churchill they were the voice of reason and now it’s meh
I don’t live in the UK so I don’t pay the licence fee and cannot (legally) access BBC TV content, which I do not much miss to be honest. However, as an avid listener of Radio 4 (which is free anywhere in the world), if the need arose, I’d be more than happy to fork out £160 a year rather than lose it.
Me too – it’s brilliant
On the occasions that I have listened to BBC World Service, I am appalled at the misleading impression that they give of the UK. It pretends that we are all Guardian-readers. That does not increase the UK’s “soft power”. Rather, it convinces people that we are a soft touch. I don’t see any advantage to the world’s population having a “favourable impression of the United Kingdom”, I can see that the World Service’s depiction of us as luvvies makes us a more popuar destination for migrants.
Are you mad? The BBC has nothing to do with immigration. Immigration levels primarily are set by British government policy. here we have Truss herself frankly admitting that Briain needs more immigration:
The Tories’ Growth Plan 2022, published alongside Kwasi Kwarteng’s Budget on Friday, promised “a plan to ensure the immigration system supports growth whilst maintaining control”.
And when Britain gets around to signing a trade deal with India, what’s the first thing that will be agreed as part of any new trade deal? More immigration:
Trade and immigration are linked.
It’s govt policies that determine immigration levels.
Not the BBC, for heaven’s sake.
Oh sure, even right wing govts like to talk tough about immigration, to keep cake-ist voters like you onside, but they know full well that immigration is a necessary part of trade. So they continually will say one thing and quietly do another.
If you really want to stop immigration, Britain needs to reinvent itself as a closed economy, N Korean style, with little to no external trade. That would sort out your immigration angst lol. Though unless you manage to vote in an actual chancer idiot like Farage (who never gets elected and therefore is always free to spout fantasy-land nonsense), I’d say your dream of a monocultural and foreigner-free Britain is destined to remain a dream.
A ludicrous and offensive rant. The people in the inflatables are not crossing the Channel because of “Government policy”. You make the lazy assumptoin that anyone who questions immigration levels must be opposed to all immigration. That way, you can avoid having a sensible discussion, and instead you produce an irrelvant rant about North Korea, etc. Grow up.
(deleted due to duplicate post)
I’ve never listened to the BBC world service but I’ve always been uneasy with the idea of it. Since it is called the BRITISH Broadcasting Corporation it sounds like it’s some kind of official mouthpiece for Britain. Perhaps it is, but do I want it such that the BBC represents Britain and me to the world? Is it really unbiased and fair? In some ways I would prefer it if it were a commercial station like CNN or FOX or Al Jazeera because then at least you’d know that it was biased and had a particular agenda.
Not sure why this should be downvoted? (I’ve just upvoted.) If the output from the BBC World Service is anything like the output to its domestic audience, we’re doing the World a favour by scrapping chunks of it. Unbiased it ain’t, and i don’t want the UK misrepresented to the rest of the world.
Soft power is one thing, soft wokeism another.
Perhaps it was downvoted because the commenter starts off with “I’ve never listened to the BBC World Service ..”
I, on the other hand, have listened to it for more than half a century: on a crystal set as a child (the Goon Show, Round the Horne etc. – not quite as exciting as Jazz Hour on the U.S. Armed Forces station, but still good), then on shortwave when I lived in Indonesia and China, and still today, because the ABC plays the World Service overnight, and I’m awake for quite a lot of the night!
The World Service doesn’t spend all that much time bagging Britain – programs like Newshour are mostly foreign coverage. I was just listening to the BBC while doing the ironing, the program was ‘Weekend’ and they did talk about the mini-budget, but mostly it was the usual … the ‘far-right’ new government in Italy, Burkina Faso etc. The history and culture programs are quite wide-ranging. Generally I prefer Radio Four.
I was just listening via the internet, which may be how most people listen to it these days – that’s how I can listen to Radio 4. And yes, it is a stupid decision to cut the World Service because the soft power is immense and it allows the U.K. to contribute to setting the international news agenda. What they choose to broadcast is what gets talked about.
I’ve seen this stupidity before, with the British Council. For very little money the British Council had a real presence in Asian countries and it’s where the young intelligentsia went to read magazines, borrow books and listen to talks. It gave Britain huge prestige and influence among the governing elites. Hard to measure in dollar terms, and the decisions are made by bean counters in London who haven’t really seen the effects of these British cultural exports in the countries they are delivered to, but it’s something the British could be proud of.
I lived in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the 1960’s. My father was the British Council rep and was responsible for English language education in all state schools, setting the exams, etc. The Council was nearby the USIS., the U.S equivalent. The latter was burnt down repeatedly in anti-western riots but the students always left the Council alone as the Council library contained the books they needed to swot for their exams.
“Slashing the BBC World Service is a disaster”
Or maybe it is yet another great example of how the BBC is not worth supporting any longer.
Bring back LILLIBURLERO!
The World Service is a dumbed down magazine woke station whose content strings together mawkish stories (“and now we go back to that heartbreaking story of the Indian boy stuck down a well for two weeks”) with some kind of left wing moral together with outright propaganda – minus any actual analysis. It is simply impossible to listen to.
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